Is John Gray a Nihilist?
The first time I read Straw Dogs, I found the thesis of the book elusive. Although the style is rambunctiously clear and the book’s tendency apparently unmistakable, I could not quite fit the pieces together. Certainly Gray is, and says he is, anti-humanist, anti-Enlightenment and scornful of human pride and of confidence in the march of inevitable progress. Nonetheless, I had the nagging feeling that I was missing something, or that Gray was withholding something. Shortly afterwards, I read the book a second time, thought more about it, and decided to consult the Tao Te Ching, the writing traditionally attributed to Lao Tzu (sixth century BC, roughly a contemporary of Confucius), which provides the title and the epigraph to the whole book. Gray also offers some occasional interpretations of the key passage from which the title and epigraph are taken. I then discovered what I thought and still think is the actual aim of the book. It is anti-humanist and anti-Enlightenment, and so on, but it is far more radical than these phrases would indicate. One begins to make better
sense of Straw Dogs when one reads the entirety of the Taoist passage that figures so importantly in the book.